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The Sound of Silents

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Moving Picture World (30 October 1909, p. 600)

Silent films were never silent. From their earliest days as an exhibition attraction, motion pictures were accompanied by some form of music–typically a piano, a musical combo in more modest sized houses, and sometimes an entire orchestra in movie palaces. In some instances, the pianist was joined by a drummer employing sound effects, something I’ve always wanted to see and hear for myself.

I’d wager that we have more silent films in our collection than anywhere else in the world, and we always make a point of presenting them with accompaniment in the Packard Campus Theater. Andrew Simpson (a professor of composition at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.) and Ben Model (who also performs regularly at, among other places, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City) are our most frequently featured musicians, but we’ve hosted accompanists from all over the world.

Among our many grand ambitions is to make more silent films from our collections available online. For some time now we’ve been prioritizing the digitization of silent titles for just this purpose. It would be a relatively straightforward matter to put them online in what would essentially be their “native” form, that is, with no speed correction (most silent films were neither shot nor projected at 24 frames-per-second, which is “sound” speed) and with no score. For instance, the roughly 500 silent titles available on the Library’s American Memory site are speed corrected, but very few of them have scores. Now that’s fine for access–better a truly “silent” silent than nothing at all–but we would like to offer a better presentation whenever we can. So, we have developed a process by which we present online many silent films with scores composed specifically for them.

Since we have literally thousands of silent titles in our collection, how do we set digitization priorities? My colleagues and I take a couple of different approaches:

  1. Make higher resolution versions of American Memory titles and replace the low resolution versions that were created in the 1990s, which might as well be the cuneiform era of film digitization.
  2. Digitize titles that don’t appear to be available anywhere…not even YouTube!
Early Motion Pictures entry for The Light That Came

Let’s focus on this second category. I’ve written about the Paper Print Collection (and not for the last time, I assure you). Back in the 1950s, a team led by Kemp Niver–you’ll definitely be hearing more about him–transferred around 3000 of the “complete” paper print titles to16mm for preservation and access purposes. Niver’s was not the first attempt to preserve the collection, but it was the most well-funded and comprehensive to that point. Those transfers are all cataloged in a terrific and indispensable volume called Early Motion Pictures: the Paper Print Collection in the Library of Congress, which is available in digital form.

Look, for example, at the entry for The Light That Came, a film directed by D.W. Griffith for Biograph in 1909. Griffith is a seminal figure in film history–in many ways, he’s the father of narrative cinema–and his work is well represented in the Paper Print Collection because Biograph was very good about registering their films for copyright.

The Early Motion Pictures entry for The Light That Came contains a wealth of information, such as when it was filmed, its length, its cast, and even a good synopsis. It also notes our shelf location numbers, the 16mm negative Niver made from the paper, and the 16mm viewing print he made from the negative. Since the 1950s, that print has been available for patrons visiting the Library, and in-person viewing was the only way you could watch the film…until now.

Last year I sent the Niver negative of The Light That Came up to the film lab for digitization using our MWA Vario scanner. Digital Film Specialist John Carter created a high definition file from the negative; that file is now stored in the Packard Campus digital archive. Not long ago, Video Engineer John Grandin pulled a copy of the file from the archive and speed corrected it to 16 frames-per-second (mostly because we agreed that looked the best–there are no contemporaneous records to indicate the precise frame rate), so now we had a copy of The Light That Came ready for scoring.

I asked Stephen Horne to compose and perform a score for the film and he readily agreed. Stephen is based in London and plays regularly for the British Film Institute, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy. He has also graced us with his presence at the Packard Campus, including the very first silent film we ever showed in our theater; we will long remember his magnificent score for A Cottage on Dartmoor.

I sent Stephen a time corrected video file and he sent back an audio file of his piano accompaniment, recorded in a studio where he was doing some other scoring work. I’ll let him tell you a little about his thought process:

I have never striven to recreate the exact style of music that may have accompanied a silent film when it was first released. There are musicians who specialize in this and I admire their work. However, I do aim for a certain authenticity, in the sense of creating music that captures the underlying spirit in which the film was made. Although the acting style in The Light That Came can seem dated, I think it has a touching sincerity and it is this sincerity that I have tried to honor in my score.”

Back at the Packard Campus we married picture and sound, added a credit at the end for Stephen (as we will for all our accompanists) and are now very pleased to present the first of what will be a veritable treasure trove of scored silent films, D.W. Griffith’s The Light That Came.

One final note by way of explanation for the film’s image quality. You will see that The Light That Came is a little “jumpy.” This is due to imperfect and inconsistent alignment of individual frames on the original paper print, which manifests itself as shakiness on the resulting film elements made by Kemp Niver. The image can be stabilized digitally, but that process requires personnel resources better used in creating digital versions in the first place. Given a choice between providing access to a lot of content or providing access to a small number of meticulously restored titles, we’re not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

The Light That Came (Biograph, 1909)

If you want to download this video, right-click here and Save As.

Comments (2)

  1. I sincerely appreciate this column;being a musician its my honor.I’d like to share this one.

  2. This news is so wonderful! Mary Pickford is especially dear to me, so this excites me to no end. Thank you all for committing to this endeavor!

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